Myanmar-U.S. Partnership to End HIV/AIDS
December 1, 2020
By Gwen Cardno
Chargé d’Affaires, U.S. Embassy
This year, we mark World AIDS Day in the context of a different global pandemic, one which has brought the health and wellbeing of our families and communities to the forefront of daily life. Just as the United States is working with Myanmar to respond to COVID-19, we have long partnered to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On this World AIDS Day, on behalf of the American people, I honor the people of Myanmar who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS and those who are working to end the epidemic. Since 2010, Myanmar has made truly remarkable progress, reducing new HIV infections by 36% — exceeding the global average — and AIDS-related deaths by 30%. Three out of four HIV-positive people now receive antiretroviral treatment, enabling them to lead healthy, productive lives. I am proud that the United States is Myanmar’s committed partner in these achievements.
Responding to COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS
Myanmar is ensuring that people living with HIV remain on treatment during the COVID-19 epidemic. I commend Myanmar and all the health workers who made this possible, working together with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, also known as PEPFAR, to respond quickly. Over 60% of all HIV/AIDS patients in Myanmar, including 87% of those supported by PEPFAR, received multiple months of their life-saving medications, especially important during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 epidemic. For patients who required medical attention, PEPFAR-supported clinics established an appointment system, moved waiting rooms outdoors, and maintained hygiene and physical distancing.
Recommitting to Our Partnership to End HIV/AIDS
Myanmar’s progress in ending HIV/AIDS is rooted in the resilience of the health workers and the communities they work in. I am deeply impressed by the impact of our work together to save lives and respond to HIV/AIDS, particularly at this challenging time in the global COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. government through PEPFAR is fully committed to helping Myanmar end the HIV/AIDS epidemic as part of our strong partnership on health.
Since 2013, PEPFAR has invested more than $70.3 million in Myanmar’s HIV/AIDS response. PEPFAR’s efforts in Myanmar are part of the U.S. government’s $85 billion contribution to the global HIV/AIDS response – the largest commitment made by any nation to address a single disease. The United States is the largest donor to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. This contribution represents a third of the budget for the Global Fund, which has funded most of Myanmar’s HIV/AIDS response since its inception in the country in 2003.
Reaffirming Our Focus on Key Populations
We have more work to do together, especially for key populations with a higher HIV risk. Together, we have learned what works to end HIV/AIDS – high-quality, client-centered services that meet people where they are with what they need. In its partnership with Myanmar, the United States continues to invest in the health system, strengthening HIV surveillance, laboratory diagnosis, and treatment monitoring, and addressing critical quality and sustainability gaps. These investments have guided the initiation of innovative HIV/AIDS services in Myanmar, including:
- Pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known as PrEP: This powerful new tool, launched in 2020, is reducing the risk of acquiring HIV through sex and through shared injection equipment by 74%.
- Buprenorphine: This effective alternative option to methadone is decreasing needle-sharing among HIV-infected opioid-dependent patients.
- Transgender clinic: Myanmar’s first such facility is serving transgender communities, with advocacy for greater recognition and inclusion.
- Self-testing: This service, also launched in 2020, is reaching first-time testers and those who would otherwise not visit a clinic for testing.
Reinvigorating Advocacy for Legal and Policy Reforms
Despite the availability of these services, people may not necessarily seek them, especially key populations at higher risk for HIV/AIDS. They face many barriers, including gender inequality, gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination.
For this reason, I applaud Myanmar for its new National Drug Control Policy, which endorses a harm reduction and public health approach for people who inject drugs. The next step is to fully operationalize this policy at a grassroots level.
Similar reforms are critical to allow female sex workers, men who have sex with men, and transgender people to seek the care that they need without fear and to help Myanmar reach its goal to end the epidemic. The 1949 Suppression of Prostitution Act and Penal Code 377 criminalize these key populations, hinder their access to HIV/AIDS services, and limit continued progress in Myanmar.
Refocusing Our Support of Local Organizations
Local organizations play a vital role in serving and representing key populations to save lives and prevent new infections. PEPFAR works closely with these organizations, such as the Metta Development Foundation, to organize within and advocate for communities. PEPFAR also engages local AIDS committees, such as those in Kachin State, to support people who inject drugs.
Last year, PEPFAR launched the 528 Love Campaign on Facebook to help the family and friends of people who inject drugs – the leading source of new HIV infections in Myanmar. The campaign provides information about drug use from a public health perspective and tips about how the community can work together. Aung La Nsang, nicknamed the Burmese Python, who is a world champion mixed martial arts athlete, and many others have shown their support to communities facing the immense challenges of drug dependency.
This year, PEPFAR launched the “U=U” (Undetectable = Untransmissible) campaign on Facebook to tackle the stigma that many people with HIV still feel, and to drive home the point that people with HIV on effective treatment pose no risk of transmission to their communities.
Together, we have learned how communities can become more resilient and make an impact despite enormous difficulties – and we have seen the success when we work together to save lives. That is why I am grateful for our partnership with Myanmar to fight HIV/AIDS. A healthy population is vital for the people of Myanmar’s aspirations of inclusive democracy, peace, and prosperity. We look forward to a future World AIDS Day when together we can celebrate the end of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
This guest column was originally published by The Voice Daily on December 1, 2020.